The Augusta Regional Transportation Study Policy Committee meeting was more crowded than usual and got a bit tense at times when the Hitchcock Parkway widening project was addressed Thursday afternoon.
Representatives from the S.C. Department of Transportation gave their usual updates on a variety of road projects in the county. But, when they got to the Hitchcock Parkway, the crowd, which was packed into the Aiken County Council Chambers, became a bit more animated.
The proposal is to widen 4.8 miles of Hitchcock Parkway from Silver Bluff Road to Jefferson Davis Highway from two to four lanes to accommodate more traffic. The project, which is about three decades in the making, got the green light for funding from the S.C. State Transportation Infrastructure Bank early last year. It voted to provide $9.5 million for the Hitchcock Parkway widening. Another $4 million will come from the one-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2010.
SCDOT Program Manager Kevin Gantt said that from the Nov. 8 public information meeting, the comments they gathered from about 250 people varied, and the plan presented that evening showed the most extreme impact to the surrounding area.
Gantt said 75 percent of the residents who commented were against the widening as planned and 70 percent recommended something of a lesser degree.
Gantt said the comments were considered and during SCDOT’s meeting with its consultant in January, they worked on implementing strategies to reduce the project’s impact on neighborhoods, businesses and churches on that stretch.
Sen. Tom Young, who has been following this project closely, asked at the meeting when another public information session would be held to show the revised plan.
According to Gantt, the process of projects like this is a “dynamic” one and always change depending on the controversy surrounding it. If local government officials feel that more public input is needed, they are asked to contact SCDOT before public involvement closes and a hearing is held for a more finalized plan.
Residents made it clear at the meeting Thursday that they wanted to see an updated plan and offer more input. SCDOT Chief Engineer Ron Patton said they will schedule something in the next two to three months to present a plan with a smaller footprint to residents and gather more comments.
“It is critical for the DOT to understand that public input on any alternative design that they develop is critical,” Young said after the meeting. “Therefore, another public information session is a must, and that message was conveyed at the meeting this afternoon.”
The proposed project is under County Councilman Andrew Siders’ district, and he said he’s gotten more calls and emails from constituents about it than any other issue.
“There’s obviously a lot of passion – I understand it,” Siders said. “I don’t feel as if we got very straight answers from the group tonight, and I can understand why people are upset about that. They want to know what the plan is and what public comment that we can have or input we can give to change that and to have any impact on it at all, so there is frustration.”
The crowd reacted negatively to the statement that the road, currently with two travel lanes, will have to be expanded to four travel lanes to meet federal highway requirements since the project is addressing capacity issues.
Gantt said in 2011, a survey showed that approximately 18,000 vehicles traveled down Hitchcock Parkway daily. The road is built for 16,000 vehicles a day and it’s projected that in less than two decades, that number will increase to about 28,000.
Robert Gilbert, a resident who has been a vocal opponent of the widening as proposed, said that he feels that there’s a lack of communication between the transportation committee and the SCDOT.
Only 10 percent of the comments reflected the want of bike paths or pedestrian pathways and comments varied on median enhancements. Even without those accommodations in the plan, Gilbert said he struggles with the idea of them trying to squeeze four or five lanes down to the existing right-of-way.
“I don’t know if that’s possible or not, but that’s essentially what DOT was saying,” Gilbert said. “Why didn’t the ARTS subcommittee say something at that point? Because that’s not what I’ve been hearing from them – that this is what they want to see happen. So, I thought the meeting was very unsatisfactory, and the things that needed to be said were not said.”
ARTS Committee Chair Fred Cavanaugh feels that the lines of communication have been open and said he hopes the local government and SCDOT will find a solution.
“We are communicating well and I think we’re working well together so far on what we want,” Cavanaugh said.